Having landed from Hong Kong at 8am Monday morning, I had time to taxi home and spend a few hours with my family before heading to ANAM in South Melbourne for the first rehearsal of the Lutosławski Cello Concerto. 

The Artistic Director of ANAM is Paul Dean, a clarinetist and composer of the highest order, and also one of the greatest people in the business despite stubbornly supporting the Brisbane Lions. Paul had approached me late last year about this concert and mentioned the Lutosławski concerto. The soloist was to be the brilliant Johannes Moser who is lighting up concert stages around the globe. Needless to say I jumped at the chance.

The concerto is notorious for being one of the hardest to conduct (let alone play) given the aleatoric construction, with many elements left to chance, and its fiendish rhythmic complexity. I remember colleagues of mine at the Sibelius Academy lamenting having come to grief on this work, so I was certainly keen to make sure I was as well prepared as possible.

I purchased a copy of the score and began my study process. I was very fortunate to meet the British conductor Ed Gardner in New York in December who had recently recorded the work with Paul Watkins. When I mentioned it was coming up for me he immediately insisted that we get together when he came to Australia to conduct the Melbourne Symphony in a few months time. He described his experience with the work as akin to learning a foreign language.  This sounded slightly ominous.

One of the main difficulties with this work is the fact that it is notated without bar lines running down the page as is normal on traditional scores. In fact the solo part, which the conductor must know practically by heart, is often just a blur of tiny black notes leading to critical orchestral moments that need to be perfectly synchronized. It took me ages to decipher what the internal rhythms of the solo part actually were and how I should best follow the rhythmic groupings.

Fortunately Ed arrived in Melbourne and we were able to spend some time together going over the work. He warned me of potential trouble spots and cleared up some questions I had. It was such a wonderful gesture of collegial generosity on Ed’s part, quite rare in this competitive world of orchestral conducting, although becoming more common I like to think. I certainly won’t forget Ed’s willingness to help and we’ve since become good friends.

The next step in the process was to reach out to soloist Johannes Moser who by this stage had been performing the work with some of the world’s finest orchestras for many months. I did this through the magic of Facebook of course, my favourite form of social media (no offence Twitter!). Johannes was glad to be in touch and over the coming six weeks we corresponded in detail about the work and he was able to answer my myriad of questions about his interpretation. He also suggested that I contact British musicologist Adrian Thomas who is perhaps the world’s leading expert on the work. He is currently writing a book about it. He too was incredibly helpful and generous with his knowledge, particularly warning against ‘over-dramatising’ the work, which in his opinion had become more common in the past decade.  “The music should speak for itself”, was his main message.

Even though I was constantly busy with other concerts in the months leading to the concert, I always found myself with the Lutosławski score in my hands – sometimes even just before walking on stage for other concerts. I don’t recommend this by the way! As time passed the work started to take shape in my head. A conductor knows that he or she is absorbing a work when you get to the stage when you can hear the page you are reading, or even better, put the score down and think it through. This can be done superficially by listening to a recording, but to really properly absorb the work it must be done by constant study and revision of the score. It’s the difference between knowing how a piece sounds, and knowing why it sounds how it sounds (a lesson from Professor Leif Segerstam).

At the first rehearsal I had the orchestra alone. I could hear that they had put in much work to their individual parts and it was very rewarding being able to explain how the concerto fitted together. On the page it’s very daunting for the musicians also. There are many ‘boxed numbers’, which represent points of arrival for the orchestra. I had worked out that the easiest way to show all of these was with the fingers of my left hand while beating time with my right when needed. There were many, many questions and we slowly made our way through the piece section by section. Johannes joined us the following day and I could see the understanding growing in the minds of the players hearing the context of their parts against the solo line. It’s a thrilling experience hearing a cellist of this calibre play one of the most difficult and emotionally powerful works of the 20th century so flawlessly. It was a terrific rehearsal, Johannes added much to the process and we were ahead of schedule.

It’s normal when rehearsing a concert program to have about an hour at the most for a well-known concerto, maybe more if it’s a new work depending on the rest of the program. In any case, we were in a luxurious position of having more time than we needed which enabled us to spend the following two days refining the work further. Johannes pointed out that he had never had the opportunity to rehearse the concerto in such detail. The orchestra sounded incredibly good. If ANAM represents the next generation of leading musicians in Australia, we are in very good shape indeed.

The concert was gripping. To a packed South Melbourne Town Hall I introduced the work and spoke briefly about its construction, history and conception. Johannes strode to the stage and we played. I was thrilled with the performance; I think everyone was, judging by the response. There were tears in the eyes of some audience members – such was the raw power and intensity of the work, and Johannes’ blistering performance. He said afterwards that he had never heard the orchestral accompaniment played better which, given the orchestras he has performed the work with, was high praise indeed and a credit to the ANAM orchestra. We shared a post-concert drink and I felt as if I had come to the end of the long journey learning the concerto. Can’t wait for the next time! Next week it’s something altogether different; Melbourne Symphony Orchestra Education Week – nine concerts, 10,000 kids coming and I get to conduct a 150-piece orchestra for Symphony in a Day.  How hard can it be, right??